question of the day: Are critics obligated to warn audiences about potentially offensive or upsetting film content?

cover your eyes

This has been bugging me all week. Joe Nathan in Twin Cities Daily Planet:

Would you find a movie entertaining in which a father repeatedly struck and screamed at his six-year -old daughter? Probably not. A national authority on child abuse is deeply concerned about a movie that contains such scenes, especially when potential movie goers are not warned about what the movie contains.

But, incredibly, and unfortunately, TC Daily Planet reviewer Jim Brunzell III recently described this relationship as “a loving bond of father and daughter,” In his July 18 review of “Beasts of the Southern Wild” reviews, he wrote that the movie also depicts “harsh realities we are faced with in doing what is best for one another and moving on.”

Because the impact of child abuse can be so strong and long lasting and the response of Brunzell and some movie critics has been bizarre, it’s important to discuss.

Nathan then goes on to quote a child-abuse expert, who has not seen the film, how “a victim of child abuse who went to the movie without knowing what was going to happen ‘could relive’ her/his own trauma.”

But this is true of almost anything that can be shown on film. Movies are so rife with violence that it’s a near certainty that someone who sees lots of movies and has been the victim of a crime will see what befell them replicated onscreen. But even nonviolent noncriminal acts have the potential to bother some audience members. Two films I saw back to back at the London Film Festival this week featured the death of deer: in one film, it’s part of a recreational hunt and is not gory or graphic; in the other, the animal is hit by a vehicle (which we don’t witness) and is clearly suffering in the middle of the road, so one character puts it down by slashing its throat, and then later we witness him butchering the animal for meat.

As I sat watching particularly the latter scene, Nathan’s article was ringing in my head… but only in an annoying way. I thought: If I recommend this film (which I will), is someone going to be angry or upset later because I failed to mention the stuff with the deer? Does Nathan think I am obligated to warn readers of everything that might possible bother someone in a film?

What do you think? Are critics obligated to warn audiences about potentially offensive or upsetting film content? How could we possibly guess at all the bits that might bother some people? And where would such a chore end? Should critics make value judgments about just how unpleasant something could be and only discuss those at the more bothersome end of the scale?

I’ve certainly come under such criticism of my own writing: there have lots of comments here along the lines of “How could you mention that offensive thing and not mention this one?” So I’m curious to hear your thoughts.

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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